Ten years back, Gopal Kishan Gupta refused to pay a bribe. A simple act, but it had massive repercussions. Gupta’s small construction business almost went under. Threats began to come his way thick and fast, he says, from local criminals, politicians, government officials, even the police. Gupta, at first stunned by the bewildering swirl of events, was afraid to even step out of his house. Then slowly, he began to find within himself a boldness he did not know he had.
He took the fight to the enemy, filing complaints with the police and cases with the courts. The Delhi high court saw enough merit in his case to order police protection for him from 2003-08. Pushing his new resolve to its limits, Gupta, now 41, began to document other cases of corruption in his locality in Pul Prahladpur, an illegal colony on the outskirts of Delhi. The most brazen example he found involved land grab.
“As per the Supreme Court guidelines, all construction in unauthorized colonies had to stop in 2007,” Gupta says, gesticulating heatedly in his small, poorly-lit office in Pul Prahladpur. “But if you walk around the colony right now, you will see construction happening openly everywhere.” The problem, he says, is that the builder mafia and government officials are working together to claim all the vacant land in the area. Gupta says that for years he has been complaining to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), furnishing photographic proof. When Gupta met the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of the locality in 2009, he was told that orders had been passed for the construction to stop. Gupta found that the police, the MCD, and the DDA had filed paperwork to show that construction had stopped, and that there had been demolition drives. Except, on the ground, there had been no demolitions, and more buildings were openly being made.
“Why do we want to save this land?” Gupta says. “Because when our colony is regularized, and we ask the government to build hospitals, schools, a park, they will say—where is the land? The land is gone.”
Gupta resorted to what has been the most powerful weapon for anti-corruption crusaders in India. He filed hundreds of RTIs (Right to Information) from 2007 to get documentary evidence of a truth that was plainly visible. His resolve paid off—in December, the Delhi Police registered a case of cheating, forgery and criminal conspiracy against 26 people, including eight MCD and DDA officials, some of whom are senior officers.
“But no action has been taken since then,” Gupta says. “I don’t know if anyone is actually being investigated. Corruption is very strong. Those who fight it are weak and in the minority, and it is very slow and frustrating work.”
Eye of the storm
Corruption is so widespread and insidious that Gupta’s experience is the norm, not the exception. Author Salman Rushdie once jokingly defined Indian democracy as one man, one bribe. The Berlin-based anti-corruption group Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index, released in December, had India ranked 95th out of 183 countries, one of the worst performers among countries not at war.
In the last two years, the issue of corruption has also been at the centre of a popular storm, much of it swirling around the contentious Lokpal Bill. The basic concept of the Lokpal Bill, centred around the office of the ombudsman with whom anyone, with the exception of public servants, can file corruption complaints against government officials, has been around since the 1960s. The first such Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in 1969, but before it could be passed by the Rajya Sabha, the Lok Sabha was dissolved and the Bill lapsed. The Lokpal Bill had been introduced nine times in Parliament over four decades before the newest version, The Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, 2011, was passed by the Lok Sabha in December. It is yet to be debated in the Rajya Sabha, where it is expected to face
The Bill continues to be highly divisive, with activists like Arvind Kejriwal, who heads the group India Against Corruption, and Anna Hazare, who was at the forefront of a movement to introduce an alternative version of the Bill, saying the current proposal is an eyewash.
Paramjit Singh Bawa, a retired police officer who is now the chairman of Transparency International’s India branch, says there are clauses in the Bill that might make it completely ineffectual. “For example, clause 60 says that the Central government may, by notification, make rules to carry out the provisions of the Act,” Bawa says. “This is a very loose proposition since it provides no time frame, and the Act is not operational till the rules are framed and notified. Now if you look at past history, we have the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act which was passed in 1988 to prevent corruption, the rules of which have not yet been notified. Which means the Act has no meaning, and no power.”
The government also failed to give the Bill Constitutional status, which means that states and the Centre can repeal or amend the Act through a simple ordinance.
Despite these problems, Bawa says it is important that the Bill is passed.
“At least there will be a forum available that is independent of the government and the executive,” he says. “An independent and dedicated machinery that can investigate all those accusations you see in the news everyday.”
Back to the roots
Yamini Aiyar, director of Accountability Initiative, which is part of the New Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for Policy Research, agrees with Bawa that a functioning anti-corruption body is bound to have a positive effect on the system, but fears it will do little to curb the roots of corruption. A bit like fighting cancer with just painkillers.
“We’ve been viewing corruption through a very narrow prism,” Aiyar says. “The assumption is that corruption exists because we don’t have mechanisms to police the system, but actually it’s a much more complex thing. When you police it, it can shift—with the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), for example, it shifted from petty corruption involving wages for labourers to a larger corruption in materials.”
The solution, she says, must come from an understanding of the complexities of corruption, where it stems from, and how it evolves.
“This has to do with institutional structures, it has to do with overlaps where every institution is performing everybody else’s responsibilities so you can’t pinpoint accountability at any specific level,” Aiyar says. “It has to do with the incentive systems—in a government organization, what are the actual things a person is held accountable for in his or her position?”
Gupta too is underwhelmed. “We have enough anti-corruption Acts and laws already,” he says. “But we don’t have any will or incentive to implement them. I see no reason why this won’t go the same way.”
Whatever the faults and merits of the Lokpal Bill, one thing is beyond doubt—there have never been as many Bills dealing with corruption-related issues in Parliament as there are right now. The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of Their Grievances Bill, the Public Procurement Bill, a Bill dealing with bribery of foreign public officials, a Bill to protect whistle-blowers, and the Lokpal and Lokyukta Bill, 2011, are all biding their time.
“They all need to be passed together,” Bawa says. “They will be used by the people with the same enthusiasm with which they are using RTI. There will be great synergy. Then you, as an ordinary citizen, can claim the information that was hidden to you, expose the loopholes, and approach an independent organization that can take action.”
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The Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, 2011
Why it is important
Following a number of big-ticket corruption scandals, civil society activists started a campaign in 2011 for the establishment of the office of the Lokpal. The government introduced the Lokpal Bill in the same year, but it was heavily criticized by civil society activists who proposed their own version: the “Jan Lokpal Bill”.
A number of anti-corruption laws are already in place. There are also multiple agencies investigating and prosecuting corruption cases. Despite this, implementation and enforcement issues are blamed for widespread corruption.
What will change
u The Lokpal may entertain complaints against the Prime Minister (with certain safeguards), ministers, members of Parliament, government officers, private companies and non-governmental organizations in certain circumstances. The Lokayukta may entertain complaints at the state level.
u The Lokpal may investigate a case based on complaints made by any person. It may also take up a case based on its own information.
Source: PRS Legislative Research.
Potential issues in the Bill
u No oversight mechanism for middle and lower bureaucracy, which is the level at which most citizens interact with government officials and face corruption.
u Harsh penalties for complaints that turn out to be false may discourage citizens.
Source: Transparency International India.
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HOW CAN YOU CONTRIBUTE
iPAIDABRIBE.COM AND JANAAGRAHA
Ipaidabribe is an initiative of Janaagraha. This Bangalore-based non-profit organization works with citizens and the government on a variety of civic issues and runs a website where you can report corruption, and which also contains detailed information on how to avoid giving bribes.
What it needs
Volunteers for research and analysis in legal, governance and civic issues, to conduct surveys, etc. It also offers internships.
Mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 080-40790400
TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL INDIA
This Delhi-based chapter of the international non-profit organization runs a variety of anti-corruption projects, including a grass-roots initiative that works to empower villages to use good governance tools like RTI, social audit, and e-governance. It also runs an advocacy and legal advice helpline for people facing corruption.
What it needs
Volunteers for research and analysis, and monetary donations.
Contact www.transparency india.org, or call 011-26460826